On Monday 16 August 1819, 60,000 people from across Manchester and the surrounding areas attended a peaceful rally at St Peter’s Field to demand political representation and hear ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt speak. Local magistrates had arranged for large support from armed cavalry officers and untrained volunteer yeomanry regiments. They were ordered to charge the crowd and arrest Hunt before he could start his speech. At least 15 people were killed and over 600 were injured. The event soon became known as Peterloo – a reference to the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.
In the crowd was John Edward Taylor, a cotton merchant and journalist. The 28 year old had a keen interest in social and political reform and wrote for a number of liberal local newspapers including Manchester Gazette. John Tyas, a reporter from the Times in London sent to cover the event, was arrested. This prompted Taylor to send his eyewitness account to be published in London with the aim of holding the authorities to account before they tried to disseminate a different version of the event.
Taylor served the committee that helped the victims of Peterloo, reported on the injured and produced the pamphlet Notes and Observations responding to a Government report which defended the magistrates. A few months before Peterloo, a friend had encouraged Taylor to set up a liberal newspaper and the events of 16 August 1819 strengthened his resolve to do so. By April 1821 he had been lent funds from 11 friends and fellow reformers. The paper’s prospectus reflected its commitment to social and political reform demanded by those who came to the rally at St Peter’s Field. An extract from it states The Manchester Guardian “will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, in the most comprehensive sense of those terms; it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy; and support … whatever measures may ... promote the moral advantage, or the political welfare, of the Community”. The first edition of the paper was published on Saturday 5 May 1821.
200 years after Peterloo, the event is being widely remembered with whole series of events, exhibitions and a permanent memorial.
Further reading and resources
John Edward Taylor and Peterloo
The Manchester Guardian Agreement
From the Archive Blog - In the wake of Peterloo The Manchester Guardian prospectus
Editorial: The Guardian view on Peterloo
The Peterloo massacre: what was it and what did it mean?- Helen Pidd
Peterloo was the massacre that led to a new democratic era – Richard Evans
‘My ancestor founded the Guardian. Its work has never been so vital’
A mission for journalism in a time of crisis – Katharine Viner
Guardian Long Read: The Bloody clash that changed Britain – Stephen Bates
Peterloo shaped modern Britain, as much as any king or queen did – John Harris
Note reveals early details of Peterloo massacre – Simon Murphy
Would the Peterloo marchers be satisfied with today’s Britain? – Helen Pidd
Peterloo: 100 years after the massacre - archive, August 1919
Peterloo – film by Mike Leigh and related articles
Delving deeper into the Peterloo massacre
Key moments in the Guardian’s history: a timeline
John Rylands – The University of Manchester Library – Peterloo Manchester fight for freedom exhibition
John Rylands Library special collections blog – Peterloo the forgotten massacre?
People’s History Museum – Peterloo and protest
Peterloo – Protest, Democracy, Freedom
Manchester Histories – Peterloo anniversary weekend
Manchester Central Library – The Hidden Tableux’s Peterloo Massacre 1819
Portico Library – Making the News: Reading between the lines, from Peterloo to Meskel Square
Peterloo: The Massacre That Change Britain – Katharine Viner (BBC Radio 4) part one
Peterloo: The Massacre That Change Britain – Katharine Viner (BBC Radio 4) part two
Today in focus podcast – Katharine Viner on the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre (comment section)
A massacre that changed Britain does Peterloo still resonate today? – video
Peterloo and Manchester – short film
What was Peterloo – 6 minute explainer
Manchester Histories – Peterloo 2019 animation